“Great” Superintendents? Context and Longevity Matter

Judging the greatness of superintendents has gone on for decades. Longevity is usually trotted out as the gold standard for being a “good,” “effective,” or “great” superintendent. How long did the superintendent serve? Superintendent-watchers usually dismiss school chiefs who served less than five years as wannabe “great” ones. Between five to ten years, well, perhaps, they can be considered. Serving more than a decade? Then, clearly a candidate.

Why is time such an important factor in judging “greatness?” Every district superintendent is hired to accomplish one or more key tasks defined by the school board or mayor that appoints the eager candidate. Those tasks may be to sustain a successful system, improve a middling one, or resuscitate a collapsed district. As most often happens in the latter case when a school board expects their school chief to turn around a failing district, the newly appointed superintendent even a veteran such as Rudy Crew in Miami-Dade County— disappoints supporters mostly through piling up enemies after tough decisions, budget retrenchment, and political slips with the school board, teachers, or community (or all three).

After serving in Chicago and Philadelphia before taking up the top post in New Orleans (and leaving that position after four years converting most public schools to charters), Paul Vallas put the saga of urban superintendents in stark, if not humorous, terms:

“What happens with turnaround superintendents is that the first two years you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements, do school construction, and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”

That has occurred enough times in the last four decades to account for urban school chiefs’ tenure being just over five years. A new report says it is now six years. Longevity and effectiveness (as perceived by the school board, media, and the public) in accomplishing critical tasks surely become standards to judge “greatness.” But there are other criteria.

Has the superintendent raised student test scores, improved graduation rates, and prepared students to enter college and career?

As with teachers and principals, this standard in determining whether the superintendent is “good” comes from the past three decades of the standards,  testing and accountability movement launched in the mid-1980s with the A Nation at Risk report (1983). What added muscle was the No Child Left Behind law (2002-2015) putting the testing and accountability movement on steroids. Champions and opponents of current school boards or mayors trumpet loudly annual gains and dips in test scores as evidence of success or failure for the current school chief. One has to read no further than articles on any sitting superintendent to get the picture (see here and here)

Because the political role superintendents have to perform is more intense than the politicking teachers and principals have to do, beginning in the 1970s, superintendent careers have surged and some have crashed on the basis of student outcomes. Even though stability in test scores is statistically suspect, clauses paying superintendents annual bonuses for gains in student achievement began to appear in the 1980s, accelerated in the 1990s, and is now a fixture in urban superintendents’ contracts. The belief that big city superintendents can lift student test scores remains strong and abiding.

So here we have three practical measures of superintendent “greatness:” Longevity, achievement of key tasks, and improved overall student outcomes.

Some recent superintendents have met these standards: Carl Cohn, Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston, Laura Schwalm, Garden Grove (CA), and Pat Forgione in Austin.

But here’s the rub. Being a “great” teacher, principal, or superintendent in one place at a particular time does not easily transfer to another setting at another time. Being satisfactory or even inadequate in one classroom, school, or district may become “greatness” elsewhere. Context, for example, trumped greatness for Carl Cohn after Long Beach and for Tom Payzant in San Diego before Boston. “Great” superintendents in the 1920s during the height of progressive education would hardly earn the label by today’s standards.

So there are standards–shaped by the setting and times–used to judge “great” superintendents, principals, and teachers. Except for longevity.

In a world where fast, fast, fast dominates daily life, where social media fire-up or doom a career within weeks and an ever-shifting economy put a premium on moving from one job to another, where staying in one position for ten-plus years is often seen as a negative—(Teach for America novices still sign up for two years), the gains in expertise and wisdom that come to certain reflective superintendents in working their magic are seldom appreciated or encouraged. Both context and longevity may not be sufficient conditions for “greatness,” but they are surely necessary ones.



Filed under leadership, school leaders, school reform policies

6 responses to ““Great” Superintendents? Context and Longevity Matter

  1. Another fascinating article, Larry. It raises many questions, too. If context matters for a superintendent, should it not also matter for teachers and administrators? And if that is the case, the 2-year model of “Teach for America” program, as you suggest, is of dubious value to providing children with effective instruction. Learning the ‘culture’ of a particular district takes time, patience and a skillful ear (among other things). The enduring myth of the superhero, reinforced by popular culture, has not helped dispel the practice of bringing in a general or a CEO as a savior for districts in crisis. I hope your article is read by boards of education everywhere, who have the fortitude for hiring an individual with staying power.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Louise. And, yes, context matters for teachers and administrators as it does for superintendents.

  2. Gail Monohon

    Longevity is not a reliable measure of quality. Boards may be reluctant to change horses because of the expense and bother of superintendent searches. They may justify their hesitation with the “devil you know” adage and put up with quite bad leadership, especially in smaller districts where board members are sometimes not well educated and confident in their ability to evaluate a superintendent’s performance.

    • larrycuban

      I agree, Gail, what you describe does occur. A small fraction of small districts do what you describe. Most do not. Especially in urban districts.

  3. Erik Burmeister

    Thanks for your always thoughtful and thought-provoking perspective, Professor Cuban. Speaking from personal experience, this job can feel like a no-win situation. It is unlike any position in education I have ever had–and I think I’ve had most of them. Unfortunately, I have found the most effective preparation for being a Sup is actually doing the job. If this is true, then many Sups may crash and burn the first time around, only to find success on their second attempt. The emotional, intellectual, and political intelligence required is daunting. You learn as you go.

    • larrycuban

      Always good to hear from you, Erik. Yep, learning to be a school chief is mostly on-the-job training. The hardest part that most educators face is the one that they too often think little about prior to serving: the political analysis and action that is a major part of the job. The managerial and instructional are familiar to former teachers and principals who ascend to the post. Not so, the political. Thanks for the comment.

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